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Cognitive Dissonance: A Spiritual Perspective

The Nature of Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance has been described by Tunbridge and Ashworth (1996) who (cited Sears et. al., 1985:50) as “A state of psychic tension caused by the simultaneous holding of mutually inconsistent attitudes or the existence of a lack of consonance between attitudes and behavior.” When this situation occurs people will adjust their patterns of behavior so as to reduce dissonance and move towards consonance. The reason for this adjustment is because no one wants to feel uncomfortable and efforts are made to reduce the tension felt as a result of the dissonance.

Myers (1987) characterized cognitive dissonance as “Feelings of tension that arise when one is simultaneously aware of two inconsistent cognitions.” Dissonance may occur when an individual is faced with an incongruous situation in which he is urged to do something he knows is wrong, but he wants to do it anyway. It could also mean that the person does not want to do what he or she knows is right. Tension is felt by the individual in this situation as a result of the cognitive dissonance because the two thoughts or cognitions (wanting to do wrong and knowing what is right) are psychologically inconsistent. This state of imbalance results in frustration and sometimes anger. However, if the individual readjusts his thoughts, and realizes that a certain behavior will conflict with deeply held beliefs, he will avoid committing the act and this will bring relief because the tension will be reduced.

Tension can also be reduced if the individual accepts a situation over which he has no control. For example, having to go to work even when there is snow on the ground. Additionally, forgiveness is also one other way for reducing tension. The example here is the story of Joseph and his brothers Although they had wronged him, he was willing to forgo his hurts and forgave them the wrong that was done to him. The example of Joseph shows that by choosing to do right, whatever the price to him, he was able to reduce the tension by himself without the aid of another person. His knowledge of right and wrong and what is acceptable assisted him in altering dissonant behavior or confused distorted thoughts.

What Causes Dissonance

Life Events Dissonance may exist due to some type of disappointing life event or a combination of events that occur in an individual’s experience. When these events take place the normal response is to remove the discomfort or at least reduce it, thus making it less effective as possible. The actions may be spontaneous or the actual remedy may take a long period for balance to be restored to the individual’s life. If a child feels uncomfortable as a result of his or her unsociable behavior, and there is a suitable contrast for good behavior, that child will behave properly to obtain the desired option. For example, if the act of mopping the floor which is considered despicable to the child would mean watching a desired television program, the sight of mop and bucket will be more acceptable given the reward for watching the program.

Making of Decisions

Dissonance can be as a result of making a wrong decision about a matter pertaining to a life event. According to Vander Zanden (1988) decisions are made depending on our cognitions of the environment and our perceptions of the information that are presented to us. With the information in hand we process it and devise concepts that we believe will assist us to our desired goals and expectations. When we receive information about a particular situation that is of interest to us, we decide whether we should proceed or turn away. It is the outcome of the decisions that make us satisfied or disappointed and it is the latter that produces the dissonance. It can therefore be inferred that the understanding an individual has about a particular information can be used as a guide in making certain decisions pertaining to life events. Making a wrong decision could be choosing a disagreeable partner, an unsuitable career or even the place to live.

Cultural Beliefs

Cultural mores can also produce a state of dissonance and this will create an imbalance in the life of the person or group affected by its presence. A Christian parent from another country may consider Sunday sports as being outside of the cultural mores of people from that side of the world if a teenager wanted to attend baseball on Sunday. This conceptualization with relation to how Sunday is to be spent may create a breakdown in the family and this can well result in conflict due to the inconsistent desire of the teenager and the relentless parent who wants to stick to his or her beliefs on how Sunday is to be spent. Similarly, if a worker who worships on Saturdays is asked to work on that day there will be conflict of either going against doctrinal teachings or in some cases leaving the job if working on Saturdays is mandatory. Culture beliefs can play a big role with conflicting concerns depending on the circumstances and situations.

The Environment

The environment plays a vital role in the existence of cognitive dissonance. The cause might be as a result of environmental elements and this can be more difficult to deal with since the individual who is experiencing dissonance must have some measure of control over the environment. Festinger noted that the reduction of “dissonance is more feasible when the social environment is in question than when the physical environment is involved.” Therefore, if the person affected by dissonant has some control over the environment such asking speakers to tone down loud conversations, this will assist in the reduction of the dissonance being experienced. Still, the person talking loudly must become aware of the disturbance that he is causing and must be willing to take action by lowering the noise coming from the conversation with the new information that he is making others uncomfortable around him. Although the behavior of an individual causing dissonance is likely to affect other people, yet the perpetrator in this context may be very reluctant to change for the benefit of those who are being offended. People are usually very resistant to change because they may see this as a threat to their livelihood, desires or beliefs. In spite of that, dissonance cannot be eliminated without some cognitive change for this to take place effectively.

Disequilibrium Resulting from Needs

Cognitive dissonance can be caused by the “existence of non-fitting relations among cognitions….” The indication is that hunger, frustration and disequilibrium are similarities of dissonance. It can therefore be inferred that dissonance can be caused by any event in an individual’s life that creates some type of inconsistency. Consequently, any form of disequilibrium such as hunger is similar to dissonance. One example could be if the individual is unable to find work, a state of need prevails and until this situation changes it creates disequilibrium in the person’s life. Festinger also stated that what a person knows about himself, his behavior and his surroundings are his congnitions. The person may use his knowledge of the environment, and other related factors as reasons why he cannot obtain employment. However, despite his views as to the reasons for his state of unemployment, he can if he wants, change this state of affairs and seek other alternatives such as further training or moving to a new location to reduce the frustration caused by the unemployment situation.


Dissonance can be caused as a result of transition. There may be fears of the unknown. For example, the immigrant entering a new country or the student going to college will have many questions and inhibitions about facing a new environment. There may also be transitional events that lead to dissonance in a person’s life and this will eventually lead to conflict within the individual expressed in attitudes and behavior. Cognitive dissonance is not a unique situation that occurs infrequently nor does it happen to a particular group or person. It is an every day occurrence faced by everyone.

Betrayal of Trust

Another cause for dissonance could be any event or new information when associated with an existing cognition pertaining to a specific, confusing behavior. If someone who has placed trust and confidence in a friend finds out that the trust has been betrayed the loss of confidence can create dissonance either for a short time or over a prolonged period. The formation of opinions or decisions by the offended create dissonance between the cognition behind the action taken, and those opinions or knowledge which tend to point to a different action. The offended person may decide to break the relationship with the betrayer. When such conditions occur there is the tendency to make every effort to reduce the dissonance that exist between the persons involved. If this is not successful, then one can only assume that there will be conflicts due to the varying of opinions and the decisions that have been made or with the difficulty in making any kind of suitable decisions.

The Society

According to Vander Zanden (1988) society contains forces that contribute to conflict, this making it inevitable. It is assumed that some of those forces could be scarce resources, racism, unequal distribution of wealth and may more factors that are considered conflicting to an individual or group.

The Church

Churches do present opportunities for conflict when rules are too stringent and the needs of individuals are subject to traditions and the personal preferences of leaders. One writer noted that the church represents a group of people who are spiritually connected into a family system (Cosgrove & Hatfield, 1994). Obviously, when conflict arises in the church family as in all families, the homeostatis is disturbed and the church becomes dysfunctional. For example, when a member knows that his or her behavior is un-Christian, but refuses to change that person experiences uneasiness resulting in conflict (Erickson, 1996).

Cosgrove & Hatfied, (1994) pointed out that the successful management to of conflict in a family system such as the church, depends on getting people to voice their real concerns. If this is so, then there must be some admission of inconsistencies that are causing the discomfort to the individual. When issues and concerns are expressed this helps in finding the real source of the problems. Furthermore, Fisher & Ury (1991) contend that disclosure is the basis upon which the solution to conflict rests. There must be willingness to change attitudes and behaviors so that successful resolution can be reached for all concerned.

Reduction of Dissonance

The reduction of dissonance can come from the experience of a life event. If an individual is cognizant of the factors that resulted in a divorce he or she will attempt to avoid those circumstances that created the problems the next time there is a decision to enter into a marital relationship. The incongruency observed in the previous marriage will assist in avoiding or eliminating any recurrence in a future relationship. The observable elements that are presented can be in the form behavior displayed in interpersonal relationships. The person may seek counseling before and after marriage. Nevertheless, it must be borne in mind that the very incident of divorce can create fear, insecurity and many more problems thereby increasing the magnitude of dissonance in a person’s life.

Cognitive dissonance can further be seen as a motivating factor that will influence an individual to change his circumstances to bring about homeostasis to his life. The inconsistencies he experiences may be due to his perceptions of the circumstances causing the discomforts. To reduce the pressures he may be forced to change his behavior pattern or any negative thoughts relating to the discomforts. For example, if the individual is unemployed, the realization of not be able to buy things and meet needs creates frustration and despondency and produce pressures. It will be the effects of the pressure caused by the discomforts that will motivate him to seek for employment to fill his needs. The discomforts brought on by the cognitive dissonance will be the motivating factor that would have stimulated him to go out and search for a job or make whatever changes necessary so that he can find fulfillment and help himself. The action of finding suitable employment to fill the needs will reduce the discomforts of dissonance.

Moreover, Myers noted that experiments indicate that to reduce the dissonance caused in the case of making wrong decisions, an individual will upgrade the substitute and degrade the other one. For example, if there is a dilemma in choosing one of two jobs the person will compare the benefits of both and diminish the deficits in the one that he had wanted initially. This action reduces the dissonance felt after realizing that a bad choice was made I going after the other job. The person will change his or her attitude towards the job that he had placed in a secondary place and this will eventually relieve the discomfort of the one he had desired and lost.

Yalom (1985) points out that in a group setting “learning or change is likely to occur when the individual in a state of dissonance, acts to reduce that dissonance.” According to him, “dissonance creates a state of psychological discomfort and propels the individual to attempt to achieve a more consonant state.” Tunbridge & Ashworth (1996) also alluded to this concept of the psychological analogy to dissonance. The psychological impact becomes a motivating factor if the individual is in a group setting such as a church where he finds that his personal needs are not being met. Where this kind of situation exists there will be some level of discomfort.

Dissonance creates discomfort or conflict and the management of the conflict is what brings about the change or relief. The management of conflict is not to eliminate or control conflict, but rather, it is an attempt to increase beneficial consequences. By doing this the harmful consequences of the conflict is decreased, but not eliminated.

How Can Churches Help in the Reduction of Dissonance?

The church is considered to be the ‘hospital’ for those who are troubled with spiritual problems. Since churchgoers make up a group of people from a variety of cultural, social, and educational backgrounds evidently there will be many conflicts of varying degrees and nature. Some of those will be interpersonal while others will be spiritual. Nonetheless, every effort should be made to make those persons feel wanted by meeting their needs where possible. The first effort should be to create opportunities for good interpersonal relationships among the members which is vital for supporting the structure of the church. Programs should be planned around homogenous age groups to avoid misunderstandings between teens and mature adults who find it difficult to cope with adolescent behavior and their mannerisms that might seem brusque or disrespectful to adults, but in place among themselves.

One of the first sign of conflicts in groups occurs with people not speaking with each other. This manifestation of poor communication can influence the membership by reducing its numbers if the matter is not dealt with efficiently and immediately. The handling of inter-group and interpersonal disputes requires tact, respect and trust incorporated with genuine affection and acceptance. There must be sincere support and a high regard for integrity. Moreover, good relationships among members in a church is a biblical priority since healthy relationships are needed for the resolution of conflicts to occur.

Techniques Used for Managing Conflict


Communication in every aspect of human interaction is one of the most important elements in the management of conflict. Despite the types of elaborate techniques that will be used, if good, effective communication skills are missing the conflict will escalate and very little or nothing will be accomplished. Effective communication means that each person in the dispute will listen attentively without interruptions while the other person speaks. The listener should avoid negative body language, or evidence of boredom. By listening this does not mean picking out words to throw back at the speaker, but rather with perception, summarizing, clarifying and empathizing. There must be patience while the speaker pauses to think and expresses himself clearly so that he makes himself understood.


Another technique for managing conflict is negotiation. Fisher & Ury (1991) took a very realistic approach to negotiation by stating that there are times when the individuals are not speaking with each other, and therefore the channels of communication must be opened for effective negotiation to take place. It would be impossible to hold a conversation with just one person even in the presence of another. After a while the speaker would become offended by the constant silence of the other. Silence is one factor that breaks down marital or any type of human relationship.

Consequently, the most difficult job of the negotiator is to get disputants talking directly to each other. If this fails there will be no satisfactory outcome of the process. Without good communication there can be no dialogue because this decreases tension. Besides good communication is a major skill in problem solving. While there maybe many other techniques that can be used, I believe that the two mentioned are vital and should be the framework for all other techniques used in dispute resolution.


Cognitive dissonance should not be treated as something to be avoided. It has both positive and negative sides to it. However, its negative side is revealed when it becomes destructive to the person or others resulting in conflicts. We should be honest with our feelings and when there are misunderstandings these should be dealt with in the spirit of love, compassion, and forgiveness. Furthermore, we should respect the feelings of others and be conscious of the impact of our attitude on those with whom we interact.

Cognitive dissonance is related to conflict management because it is the results of the conflict that lead the persons involved to seek resolution. Dissonance can be presented as intra-personal whereby it affects beliefs and values and this is borne out in behaviors resulting in interpersonal problems. These will have an impact on the family, church and community.


Cosgrove, Ch. & D. D. Hatfield (1994). Church Conflict: The Hidden Systems Behind The Fights. Abingdon Press.

Erickson, M. J. (1996). Introducing Christian Doctrine. Hustad, L. A. (Ed.). Baker House.

Festinger, L. (1963). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press.

Fisher, R. & Ury, w. (991). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. (Second Ed.). Pattin, B. (Ed.). Penguin.

Myers, D. G. (1987). Social Psychology. (Second Ed.). McGraw Hill, Inc.

Tunbridge, J. E. & Ashworth, G. J. (1996). Dissonant Heritage. The Management of the Past as a Resource in Conflict. John Wiley & Sons.

Vander Zanden, J. W. (1988). The Social Experience: An Introduction to Sociology. Random House.

Yalom, I. D. (1985). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychology. (Third Ed.). Basic Books.


Barbara Stuart

Barbara Stuart works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as assistant to the Director of Mediation. A certified teacher and she holds a M. Ed. from Cambridge College, MA; and a Ph. D. from Southwest Bible College and Seminary, LA in Christian Counseling Psychology. MORE >

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